The Eagle (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
One of Hollywood's legendary quotes is attributed to studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, who — defending his preference for making straightforward cinematic entertainment — reportedly said, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." That's been the industry's default mode for most of its existence, its lessons generally limited to non-controversial stuff like, "Remember that the true meaning of Christmas isn't about buying stuff, after you buy a ticket to this movie."
Film journalists may gripe about the general empty-headedness of movies, but there's something even more aggravating about a movie that tries to say something despite having no idea exactly what that something is supposed to be. The Eagle is one of these true movie muddles: a period action yarn that may or may not be trying to instruct us about the murky moral quagmire of empire and occupation, between beheadings.
It's 140 A.D. in Roman-occupied Great Britain. Arriving for his new placement as commander of a frontier garrison is Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), a soldier's son haunted by a debacle in which his father and his men never returned from an expedition in the north of Britain, and lost their emblematic golden eagle in the process.
An injury in battle threatens to keep Marcus from his redemptive mission, and stuck on the home front with his uncle (Donald Sutherland, almost visibly cashing his paycheck). But with the help of a native Briton slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus undertakes a likely suicide mission beyond Hadrian's Wall into the untamed north to recover the eagle.
Prior to this, Marcus was bold enough to entreat an easily swayed crowd to spare Esca's life during a gladiatorial contest, so Esca has sworn allegiance to this Roman. Thus we have an apparently complex question of where our sympathy lies. With Marcus, who is on a quest to restore an "honor" based on raping, pillaging and generally subduing the local populace? Or with Esca, who devotes himself to the service of a man who represents the subjugation of his fellow countrymen?
The Eagle isn't a Braveheart tale, squarely on the side of brave freedom-fighters taking on their occupying overlords. When we first get a glimpse of a full community of native Britons, it's of the ferocious "Painted People" who mostly play the role of nameless adversaries chasing down our heroes with dogs, like Nazis in loincloths. Meanwhile, the long-lost Roman soldier (Mark Strong) that Marcus meets is a tragic figure haunted by the shame of his failed mission. Score one for turning the first global superpower into the underdog.
The ironic thing is, it was only last year that we had a movie in which a second-century Roman soldier is forced to confront the reality of relentless native guerilla action in the British Isles: Neil Marshall's Centurion. That film was hardly a piercing geopolitical treatise in cinematic form, but it stripped down the story to a manageable size, and was savvy enough not to be stingy about the sword-and-sandals mayhem.
The Eagle plays as a simplistic adventure that wants to be taken seriously, but never has the guts to stake out a point of view. Soldiers on both sides of a conflict can be respected for their bravery, says Marcus near the finale — except that one side may be crazy natives who slay their own children.
Western Union could have delivered the message much more efficiently.